If you were to ask most people what are some of the key factors that determine whether or not their body will respond to their particular type of training, you will often get several answers. The majority of individuals would we say that you need to focus on the following:
- Strength training
- Aerobic training
- High intensity intervals
I am sure we could add a few more items to the list above, but you get my point. I agree that the items that are mentioned above do play a pivotal role in your training as well as your ability to improve your health and transform your body.
However, one of the key areas that is often overlooked by most athletes as well as people looking for peak health is RECOVERY. Over the past couple of years there has been a greater emphasis among coaches to find the best recovery techniques for their athletes. For years athletes have implemented recovery techniques like cold plunges or contrast baths. Runners as well as multisport athletes have reaped the benefits of receiving post workout massages by skilled therapists.
In my opinion, having a strategy that addresses your recovery for every session is just as critical as the workout itself. When we are in the gym we are imposing a stress (i.e. weights, running, etc.) on our body in an effort to change the way we look or feel. Once we leave the gym or finish the workout we often neglect our recovery because “we have to get to work” or “I don’t have time to stretch because I need to get to a meeting.” All of us are guilty of this and at times it’s okay to allow this to happen. However, if you really want to maximize your results it’s time to implement a recovery plan.
Here are a few of my favorite recovery strategies for both athletes as well as weekend warriors:
Post workout breathing: Instead of using every minute of your workout to spin on a bike or run that last interval, cut your workout short by five minutes and perform 10-15 deep diaphragmatic breaths at the end of your workout. The goal here is to go from a sympathetic state (fight or flight) to a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state before you jump in your car to head home. By doing this simple task you will kick start your recovery process and allow your body to return to homeostasis.
Have a post workout drink/smoothie: This is a topic that continues to be debated by coaches and athletes. Does drinking a protein shake immediately after a workout speed up the recovery process? For me, I believe the benefits of having a quality protein and carbohydrate shake after a workout (10-20 minutes post workout) does have benefits in terms of carbohydrate recovery as well as hydration. I also believe it has psychological benefits as well. A simple way to implement this is to either make the smoothie the morning of the workout or make one the night before and freeze it if you prefer to have it cold. Either way the smoothie is a much better option than ice coffee and a muffin on the ride home.
Massages: I am big believer in manual therapy. If you listen to experts like Patrick Ward (www.optimumsportsperformance.com) he will tell you that tissue quality is critical to recovery and performance. If you have ever had a massage you know that there are several different kinds to choose from. For starters, I would recommend that you find a skilled manual therapist who can determine what state your nervous system is in (i.e. sympathetic or parasympathetic) and decide what type of treatment is best for you.
Most professional athletes have the ability to get a massage 2-3 times per week. If you are on a budget, like most people, try and block out a massage once a month if possible. Another good option is to contact a local massage school and ask if their students have to do clinical hours. This option can be a great way to get a massage once a week.
Epsom salt baths: When I tell most adults about this the first thing they say is “My grandmother use to tell me to do this.” The reason your grandmom knew about this is because chances are she was a lot healthier than we are right now and she knew the benefits from a warm Epsom salt bath. The benefits we receive from this are an increase in magnesium (this is good since most of us are deficient) as well as a calming effect to our body. A great time to implement this strategy is before you plan to go to bed. This will help you relax and I can almost guarantee that you will have a great night’s sleep by implementing this simple strategy.
Mobility circuit: The majority of men reading this could benefit tremendously from this tip. Instead of heading to the gym and jumping on the treadmill for 45 minutes, I want you to focus on a total body mobility program. Chances are if you sit all day at a desk you have back as well as neck pain. I can also guarantee that your hamstrings feel tight all the time. A good mobility circuit can take as little as 10-15 minutes. Here is a sample routine:
- Warm up with 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths (prone or supine)
- Ankle mobility (Wall ankle dorsiflexion)
- Hip mobility (Groiners)
- Shoulder mobility (Push up w/ T-spine rotation)
- Movement (Single leg A-skips)
Performing a good mobility circuit is a great way to speed up the recovery process as well as reduce DOMS (Delayed onset muscle soreness).
Meditation: If you had told me a couple of years ago that meditation could help you speed up your recovery, I probably would have laughed at you. However, having done a better job of being open to new ideas and educating myself, I now believe that mediation can have a big impact on your ability to recover. Most of us are always on alert. Our minds are always racing from one idea to the next (myself included). In her book Mind Over Medicine, author Lissa Rankin, M.D. is quoted as saying “When our beliefs are hopeful and optimistic, the mind releases chemicals that put the body in a state of physiological rest, controlled primarily by the parasympathetic nervous system, and in this state of rest, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are free to get to work fixing what’s broken in the body.”
If you speak to an expert on mediation I am sure that his/her idea of mediation may be different than mine. I am new to the process and like anything it takes time to master this type of treatment. What I would recommend is start with 1-2 minute segments both in the morning as well as the evening before bed. Do your best to focus on your breathing and try to clear your head of any negative thoughts. At first this will be very hard to do but as you become more comfortable with your breathing you will start to see the benefits and you can then increase the time spent meditating. The best time in my opinion to do this is first thing in the morning before your day gets too hectic.
A final point to remember is that your body is very smart. It will adapt to the stress placed upon it. So you need to switch up your recovery techniques every couple of weeks. If you get a massage every day using the same technique, although it will feel good it may start to lose some of its benefits. I always recommend that you cycle through your favorite techniques every couple of weeks.
I realize that some people will read this and say “Recovery is for wimps, all you need to do is work harder.” I honestly use to think that as well; however, trust me when I tell you that having that mindset was one of the worse decisions I ever made. Your body will eventually shut down and if this happens you may eventually find yourself in a deep hole and your chances of injury and illness skyrocket. Be smart with your training. A key phrase that I live by now is “Train hard when your body is ready and rest hard so you can reap the benefits of your hard work.”
Kevin Miller is the strength and conditioning coach for the Philadelphia Union. For more on Miller and the Union, visit philadelphiaunion.com.
Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.